AMMAN— A fierce military campaign by government forces and their allied militias in Maarat al-Numan in northern Idlib province left the city looking like a ghost town, Muhammad al-Uthman, a resident of the city, said in an interview with Syria Direct. Nearly all its residents vacated and only a handful returned to check on property they left behind. 

In an unusual change in his routine, the 30-year-old al-Uthman did not drive through the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway to get to Maarat al-Numan last week, also known as the M5 Highway. The traffic there has become “very dangerous,” he said, and subject to bombing by government forces since they took control over the city of Jarjanaz last month.

Road map

Damascus's desire to assert control over the strategic M5 highway, which runs through Maarat al-Numan’s eastern neighborhoods, has made the city and its surrounding towns along the route a key target of government military forces.

Although Idlib province and its surrounding areas in the countrysides of Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia fall within the third “de-escalation zone” designated by Russia, Turkey, and Iran during the Astana Talks in May 2017, the government in Damascus and its Russian and Iranian allies have not abided by the terms of the agreement. 

In September 2018, Moscow and Ankara reached a new agreement in northwest Syria, which included founding a demilitarized “buffer zone” with a depth of 15-20 kilometers running between government and opposition territory. The agreement also provided for a ceasefire and for Russian-Turkish patrols to observe the area. 

Furthermore, it called for the restoration of commercial traffic that has not happened yet, on both the Damascus-Aleppo (M5) and Aleppo-Latakia (M4) highways. 

Nonetheless, since February 2019, military campaigns by government forces and their allies have continued in Idlib, capturing previously opposition-held towns including Jarjanaz, Morek and the city of Khan Sheikhoun. 

Although the government in Damascus appears to be responsible for violating the terms of Russia’s agreement with Turkey, it has skirted the rules by “operating under the Russian umbrella,” according to Navvar Şaban, director of the Information and Military Affairs Unit at the Istanbul-based Omran Center. 

“The regime is not freely acting on  the fronts in Idlib,” Şaban told Syria Direct. “[Although the regime] has some margin of freedom in some spots, it cannot decide on the [M5] international road on its own,” due to the forces’ position under the Russian umbrella. 

“If the regime had its way, it would continue to advance towards Maarat al-Numan after taking control of Jarjanaz,” Şaban added, noting that with the regime’s control over Jarjanaz, it can strike the town of Talmanes and the city of Maarat al-Numan from a strategic location.

“The lack of progress confirms some type of Russian-Turkish agreement about the future of the region,” he said.  

Converging interests

No new announcements on Syria were made after the January 8 meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, to open the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, which would carry Russian gas to Europe through Turkish territory. 

The bilateral talks seemed to be limited to “the security of Turkish observation posts, and the recent escalation in Idlib,” according to Oytun Orhan, a researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern (ORSAM) studies in Ankara.

However, the opening of the two international highways serves the interests of Damascus, Russia and Turkey. Moscow wants to restrict local opposition factions to a small area far from the M4 and M5 highways to start the reconstruction process there. The fact that Damascus has given Russian investors priority in the country’s reconstruction contracts further incentivizes the opening of the highways. 

Utilizing control over the international roads, Russia is also seeking to “achieve political influence by  enhancing the perception that the regime has regained control over the critical economic and transportation routes” said Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a military commander in the Jaish al-Izza opposition armed group in northwest Syria.

Turkey, on the other hand, is also interested in opening the M4 and M5 highways since they would allow Turkish trucks to cross into the Gulf states. 

Such a step “facilitates the main economic activity in Syria, generates profit for everyone, and helps with the reconstruction of Syria,” according to Ömer Özkizilcik, a researcher at the Foundation for Political Economic and Social Research (SETA), an Ankara-based think tank close to the Turkish government.

Turkey is especially well-positioned to profit; before the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution it “was the fourth largest exporter to Syria; [whereas] currently it is the biggest exporter to Syria, including the regime-held areas,” he told Syria Direct.

Despite the long-running conversation about opening the M5 highway, which extends to the Turkish city of Gaziantep, “nothing has happened so far, and it is unlikely that something will happen soon,” Özkizilcik said.

From Morek to Maarat al-Numan 

Since the latest Russian-Turkey ceasefire agreement in northwest Syria took effect last Monday or Thursday, Damascus has not abided by the new “armistice,” according to a statement by the Syrian Civil Defense Forces (White Helmets).

Twenty people were killed and 85 injured in the 24 hours after Russia and regime forces broke the ceasefire in Idlib, the White Helmets reported. Thirty-eight cities were targeted with 79 airstrikes, 130 artillery shells, and 36 barrel bombs. 

The breach of the current ceasefire agreement by Damascus is similar to that of Khan Sheikhoun, located south of Maarat al-Numan on the Damascus-Aleppo (M5) Highway. Government forces captured the city in August 2019, shortly after the breakdown of a ceasefire reached during the 13th round of Astana talks a few days earlier. 

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), since the collapse of the previous ceasefire, government forces and affiliated militias made rapid progress on the ground. From August 5 until August 23, government forces captured more than 35 cities, towns, and villages in the northern countryside of Hama and the southern areas of Idlib, including Morek and Khan Sheikhoun. 

The opposition’s stance

Syrian opposition factions are trying to stall the advancing government forces along the axis that runs from Jarjanaz to Maarat al-Numan.

According to Captain Naji Mustafa, the spokesperson for the National Liberation Front (NLF), which operates in Idlib, “the goal of these operations by the military factions is to reinforce positions and stop the regime and its sectarian militias from advancing to liberated [opposition-controlled] areas.”

At the same time, it appears that Syrian opposition factions are still relying on Turkey as a guarantor of the de-escalation agreement. However, Turkey’s position, according to Bakour, tends to be to “open the [international] roads while preserving its control over them through [Syrian opposition] factions, since this is in [Ankara’s] interest, rather than Russian control.” 

“Talking about the Russians means talking about the arrival of the regime, and this is unacceptable,” he said. 

Bakour referred to the military campaign in Idlib as “a Russian campaign.” He described it as “a wide-ranging campaign, not a limited one, which has proceeded in stages. This current stage may be to [control] international roads.” 

Nevertheless, Bakour ruled out the opening of the international road networks to commercial traffic because that would lead “to targeting every vehicle and person on the road that could serve the regime.” Accordingly, Russia and Turkey, both seek “to reach  an agreement [in this regard] at a minimal cost,” according to Şaban.

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Calvin Wilder.

This article reflects changes made on 1/19/2020 at 2:02 PM.